Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Keep your hands off the Internet, governments

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The Internet can be a cesspool. Pornography. Violence. Scams of every shape, size and colour. Extremist views and anonymous bullying. Hatred and xenophobia.

But those of us who spend a great deal of time there will be quick to point out the positive aspects of the Net far outweigh the negative. Internet access is improving the human condition in a more fundamental way than any other technology in history. This is particularly true in the developing world, where access is growing dramatically -- 2011 statistics suggest connectivity is growing by as much as a half million daily, the majority thanks to mobile technology.

Proponents of democratic and political freedom are better able to share information and organize themselves to attack and defeat the walls of tyranny. And in spite of its disruptive impact on aspects of the global economy, the Internet is a job creator. According to a study by McKinsey and Company, a leading technology and consulting company, for every job eliminated by the Internet, 2.6 new ones are created.

These negative and positive attributes share one thing in common: They both flourish in part because of the nature of how the Net is governed -- bottom-up, using a multi-stakeholder model that eschews rigid, hierarchical governance and control. That could change if the International Telecommunications Union has its way. Formed under United Nations auspices, the role of the ITU historically has been to deal with matters such as the harmonization of technical standards, routing messages and the best ways to facilitate broadband access. If countries including Russia, China and the United Arab Emirates get their way, that mandate could expand to an alarming degree.

At its 2012 conference, some member countries pushed for the ITU to take over governance of the Internet, replacing non-governmental players like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. What kind of governance? In the United Arab Emirates, it is an offence punishable by three years in jail to "deride or damage" the reputation of the state or its institutions. China has repeatedly tried to ban Internet access for political reasons. Other ITU ideas include: Regulate international mobile roaming rates and practices, allow phone companies to charge fees for "international" Internet traffic and subject cyber security and privacy to international control.

The sort of global governance would be devastating to the Internet, which is a global network of networks without borders. So it's a very good thing that Canada, the United States, Britain and 18 other countries walked away rather than discuss measures that would restrict free expression and speech in cyberspace. Governments need to keep their hands off the Internet.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2012 A12

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